Tag Archives: folk festival

Room For All: A Guide for Shrewsbury Folk Festival Newbies (including festival review 2017)

I first attended Shrewsbury Folk Festival in 2012, signing up as a volunteer very last minute and had a wonderful time, as it is just an incredibly well-run and relaxed event. It not only bursts at the seams with incredible live music and dancing, it also has an ideal location being walking distance from the centre of the historic English town of Shrewsbury, in Shropshire, not far from the Welsh border.

Bellstone Marquee SFF 2017.jpg

The 2017 Festival

For me, this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival (26-28 August 2017) was all about collaborations. Some of the exciting collaborative projects were The Passerine (Folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow with musicians from Egypt, India, Sudan and other countries) as part of the new Room For All Initiative celebrating cultural diversity, all female ‘supergroup’ Coven (Grace Petrie, O’Hooley and Tidow, Lady Maisery) and the closing performance in the newly named Bellstone tent (Marquee 1) ‘Faith, Folk & Anarchy’ with Steve Knightley, Tom Robinson and Martyn Joseph. As festival co-founder Alan Surtees sadly passed away earlier this year, there were lots of emotional tributes to him as well as a CD to support the newly created Alan Surtees Trust. Other local and international artists included Loudon Wainwright, Le Vent du Nord, Skippinish, The Unthanks, Daphne’s Flight, Sarah Jarosz, the Oyster Band, Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble, The East Pointers and Ragged Union. While SFF is very much dedicated to folk music in its many forms, performers from other genres, such as the excellent Stockholm based US blues musician Eric Bibb this year, also always find a musical home here. My favourite new discoveries were The Fitzgeralds from the Ottawa region of Canada, who also offered an excellent step dancing workshop, which was attended by well over a hundred people. There was also a new stage this year, The Launchpad, near the food and bar area, showcasing up and coming musical talent, e.g. the excellent The Trials of Cato (who are based in Wales, but met each other in Lebanon, of all places).

Eric Bibb SFF 2017.jpg

What accommodation options are there?

As a general punter you can arrive to pitch your tent from Friday morning (the music starts in the early evening) and the festival programme usually finishes around early evening on Monday, so most people leave around then or stay until the next morning (the last unofficial gathering in the onsite Berwick bar with lots of craft beer and cider on tap is always a highlight). If you’re in a campervan, you can park it beside your car or a car park across the road, depending on how much space there is when you arrive. I always come by train and the taxi to the site is less than 5 pounds or a 10 minute walk. There are three permanent toilet buildings (the one in the bar has mirrors and plugs for drying your hair) plus some nice toilets with sinks dotted around the site. The free showers are also good (and nice and hot) and there are drinking water taps available, too. Alternatively, Shrewsbury has a number of great hotel and B&B options, just make sure you book fairly early as it is a very popular weekend (with other events like a large steam fair on as well).

Pig Dyke Molly SFF 2017.jpg

What is it like to volunteer at the festival?

I always have a great time volunteering at SFF. You make new and meet up with old friends, are part of a lovely motivated team and help making the festival a success. In exchange for about 15-16 hours of work, you get a festival and camping pass for the weekend and work shifts of 2-4 hours at a time. You can also arrive a day early on Thursday from lunchtime. It is advisable to sign up as early as possible, i.e. email the festival for more details about steward applications. You can then choose one of the teams to work in, but please be aware that you might not always end up on your preferred team (especially if it’s your first time) and that it is not always possible for you to see all the artists you might want to see (but you can always try and request one or two). Some shifts also run fairly late (I had an evening shift until 1am), but this depends on your particular team. You can also volunteer to do setup and takedown, if you have time to arrive early and leave late and thereby be free during most of the festival.

Stone sign SFF 2017.jpg

What kind of food and drink can I expect?

There is an outdoor food area around a large tent with tables and seats right beside the main marquee and it offers all the food you could possibly want (burgers, pizza, Mexican, Indian, Italian, fish & chips, two specifically veggie/vegan stalls, sandwiches, coffee, ice cream and cakes). This is supplemented by two large bars, the Berwick bar in an actual building and the beer tent beside the food area, both with tables and chairs, so you definitely won’t go hungry and thirsty!

What is there to do at the festival apart from the live music concerts?

I tend to focus on the concerts, but I often meet people who spend all weekend in trad sessions or in the dance tent. If you play an instrument, there are many tuneworks sessions, which include fiddle, whistle, guitar, accordion, melodeon, ukulele and even mountain dulcimer. You can bring your own instrument(s) or, for some of the beginners classes, borrow one for the class or the weekend (but please confirm this before you arrive). There is a whole separate Children’s Festival section (0-10 years) with a circus tent, lots of music, craft and acrobatic workshops all weekend and a lovely lantern procession in the dark. Older kids (11-20 years) can join the Refolkus Youth Festival and also improve their samba drumming or singing skills, be part of a dance battle or try some aerial acrobatics.

Festival Beach SFF 2017.jpg

How accessible is the festival?

SFF does its best to be inclusive to everyone. The location has paths leading to all the main venues, which are suitable for wheelchair use and mobility scooters and wheelchairs can be rented for the weekend. Accessible toilets and showers are also available beside the Berwick bar and there is a special disabled camping area beside between the Sabrina marquee and the bar. Most of the venues have an easily accessible wheelchair area (usually in the front) and the volunteer stewards can point you to it in each venue.

Bella and Ruby SFF 2017.jpg

Can I bring my dog?

Yes, you can, if it’s friendly and you look after it well. Which means you pick up after it and don’t leave it in your car for hours on end. Dogs are not allowed inside the main music venues, but there is usually space on the grass at the back or side of the tents where dog owners can spread out a blanket and enjoy the show with their four-legged buddies. I petted so many nice dogs (you can see a selection on my Instagram account Cuddle a Dog a Day), including a number of adorable puppies, this year and it’s nice to find out their stories and a great way of getting to know people, which is super easy at SFF anyway as most people are very friendly. There are also many dog owners in Shrewsbury itself and there is a great app/website called Doggie Pubs to find out about dog-friendly places to eat and drink around the UK.

Tuba music SFF 2017.jpg

Will I enjoy myself even if I’m not a big fan of folk music?

This depends a bit about how open you are to trying out new things. The good thing about folk music is that it covers many different styles and SFF only book top class musicians, so if you’re willing to be open-minded, you will definitely have a great time. Plus, you can learn a new instrument from scratch over the weekend, improve your dancing skills, do some yoga, browse the many clothes and pressie stalls or simply chill in the sun (which we’ve had buckets full of this year, not a drop of rain!). Don’t worry about visiting by yourself, it’s practically impossible not to get chatting to some friendly folkies at SFF and lots of people return year after year. You can always opt for a day ticket to start with and I’m sure it’ll be a weekend pass next time around ;-).

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Is it worth checking out the town of Shrewsbury while I’m here?

Absolutely. The birth place of Charles Darwin has a number of museums and historic sights and is just a lovely, lively town to explore any time of the year. During SFF there are lots of morris displays (my fav this year was Pig Dyke Molly from East Anglia) and a parade around town on Saturday and Sunday. The city’s many cosy pubs, cafes and restaurants serve excellent food, including quite a few veggie and vegan options and I often head into town for breakfast to start my festival day. I also always do a charity shop crawl as there are a good dozen or so dotted around the city centre. A few of them also have stalls at the festival itself. In addition, Shrewsbury hosts lots of other interesting events year round, including the Shrewsbury Literature Festival in November. Free festival shuttles take you in and out of town on Saturday and Sunday, but the ten-minute walk along the river is a great way to stretch your legs, especially if the weather is as nice as this year.

Sunset flags SFF 2017.jpg

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Happy Campers Despite The Rain: Cambridge Folk Festival 2017

Of the three years I’ve been to Cambridge Folk Festival, the 52nd edition, from 27-31 July 2017, was the least euphoric for me (for lack of coming up with a better adjective for it). The weather was not great on most days and really sucked on Saturday night plus there wasn’t really any act that I was dying to see live this time. On top of that, on the last festival night, I managed to pick a bus to the campsite with a driver how wasn’t in the mood to do the roundabout thing, which I’d been looking forward to practically for a year. Having said all that, I still had a great time because of the fantastic new music I discovered, the always friendly vibe, the yummy food and last but most definitely not least the fun team I worked with (third year in a row).

Main Stage Crowd CFF 2017.jpg

Of the acts I did catch I was most impressed by a few of the bands I had not seen before like the excellent She Drew the Gun from Liverpool, Amythyst Kiah from Tennessee, the Indigo Girls with guest band member Lucy Wainwright, Juanita Stein, Worry DollsMoxie and Daoirí Farrell (both from Ireland), 2017 Grammy winner Fantastic Negrito (see second pic below), The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, Blue Rose Code and Scottish band Admiral Fallow (see pic below), the last set of the festival for me and the perfect end to this year’s event.

Admiral Fallow CFF 2017.JPG

Acts I didn’t care much for were Jake Bugg (really doesn’t compare at all to, say, the Passenger performance in 2015, but still attracted lots of screaming selfie-taking teenagers) and, a bit unexpectedly, Shirley Collins, whose main stage performance was rather uninspiring and who seemed to favour sticking with just music from the past and dissing musicians creating new ‘folk’ music. Surely traditional music was also new at some point and it’s exciting to witness the emergence of new folk songs, the best of which are bound to be classics one day while keeping the best of traditional folk music alive as well.

We also got some fantastic surprise sets at the Clapham’s Common After Hours Stage (my favourite way to relax after a long festival day) with appearences by Jon Boden (yes, really!) and lots of other great performers until about 1.30am most nights. The campsite was still fairly quiet overall and I had a few good nights’ sleep.

Fantastic Negrito CFF 2017.JPG

Instead of doing a run-down of my festival weekend I thought this time around I’ll answer a few questions people tend to ask me about going to festivals. Here we go…

What is it like working at a festival?

I do a mix of attending festivals with a press pass, volunteering and, like at Cambridge, working as part of the festival team. Each of them have their advantages and disadvantages. With a press pass you tend to have easier access and can see any acts you want, but it can also be a bit boring as it takes more effort to interact with people if you’re there by yourself. As a volunteer you have a ready-made group of pals you work and hang out with, which is great fun and a lot more sociable and you still get to see a lot of acts as you generally get given a festival pass. I try and volunteer only at festivals that ask for no more than 4 hours per day, as I think any longer shifts are basically work and should be paid accordingly. At Cambridge we do about 6-8 hours of paid work a day and as you’re staff it comes with a bit more responsibility than simply being a volunteer. But it’s so great to work with other people who are motivated and to make sure, together as a team, the audience is having a fun and is having a safe festival experience. As we are usually the first to notice if anything doesn’t go according to plan (accidents, logistical issues, lost children, the lot), we really get to see how much work and coordination it takes to make such a large event happen and how good teamwork positively contributes to it.

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Isn’t camping sort of roughing it and not very enjoyable?

I first started festival camping in 2012 when I made the crucial mistake of buying a super light tent with only one skin. It makes me cringe thinking back to that summer when my little tent got flooded by rain and after a wet and uncomfortable night I headed into the nearest town desperate to buy a sturdier model. Since then I’ve had the best of times with my ‘happy tent’ (see pic below), a 3-man dome tent, which is just perfect for one person actually. It fits my self-inflatable sleeping mat and sleeping bag on one side and my handluggage-sized trolley and other bits and pieces on the other side. I only go to festivals with reasonable shower and toilet facilities, so do read the FAQs of the festival(s) you’re planning to go to. I also always travel by public transport, so it’s essential to keep everything to a minimum while still bringing enough change of clothes, wellies etc. to keep you comfy no matter what the weather gods throw at you. Although there tend to be very few thefts and festival security patrolling the camp sites at most festivals I’ve been to, it’s also wise to not leave any valuables in the tent if you can avoid it. Some festivals offer lockers or you might be able to ask a neighbour in a Campervan to keep things for you if needed. Campers tend to be friendly, helpful folks, so don’t be shy to ask for help and offer it yourself if you see anyone struggling with putting up their tent (we’ve all been there).

Happy Tent CFF 2017.jpg

Don’t you get lonely attending a festival by yourself?

I love solo travel and that also applies to festivals. Most of my friends are not quite as excited about festivals as I am and I’m not quite as excited about drinking, smoking and just hanging out when there are the most amazing bands on the line-up. So I just tend to have more fun on my own. Yes, the first night when you don’t know anyone yet, can be a bit lonely, but it’s a great opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and talk to new people or learn to sit with that feeling of loneliness, which is also a good experience from time to time. I always bring books to read and a journal to write in and there is so much on all the time that I hardly ever have any spare time anyway. Like already mentioned above, volunteering or working at a festival is a great way of meeting new and most of all trustworthy people, who can keep you a seat or look after your bag while you’re off to the loo, all of which is a bit more difficult when you’re on your own.

Molly Orange CFF 2017.jpg

What do you recommend bringing to a festival?

I hate being cold even more than being too warm. So I always pack a blanket, a hot water bottle (onsite ambulance stations or coffee vans sometimes let you fill those if you ask nicely or you can bring a travel kettle if there are plugs around the site), a water bottle as festivals always have taps for drinking water (saves the environment and quite a bit of cash, which you could spend on artist merch instead), band aids, dry shampoo, plastic bags (you can never have enough of those, especially when the weather is bad) and for those weekends when it gets really sunny don’t forget your sun protection and a hat.

Women in Music CFF 2017.jpg

How do I get to be in the front row for a particular set?

Every festival is different, but at Cambridge you basically have the largest stage (stage 1), the slightly smaller stage 2 and the Club Tent (talks/Q&As, folk clubs and more traditional music during the day, fairly up-tempo acts at night) plus The Den (up and coming acts, just outside the main festival area). For both stages 1 and 2 I recommend getting to the front at the end of the set just before the one you want to see. If you get there only by the start time of your preferred artist, that is usually too late, so you do need to plan ahead. Having said that, Cambridge is always fairly relaxed and you won’t have to worry much about it being too crowded and claustrophobic. The tents are open on two sides (stage 1) or three sides (stage 2) and this might be an English thing, but there are often gaps in the middle as most people tend to stand around the edges, so if you say ‘excuse me’ a lot in a friendly way while threading your way through the crowd, you might get further to the front even if it looks busy from outside the tent. People are also generally willing to let children stand in the front. During the Indigo Girls set on Friday night, there was a girl even sleeping in between other people’s legs right behind the front row, so it’s definitely no problem with little ones.

My partner doesn’t care much for music, what else is there to do?

Cambridge has lots of alternative activities on all day and most of them take place by the Duck Pond, a bit outside the main arena. The Hub offers workshops for children and young people (craft, dance, music), the Flower Garden does too (talks, storytelling, music workshops) and there is a healing area as well with Tai Chi, yoga (sadly missed both sessions this time), positive thinking, drawing and willow art. There is also a café there where you can refuel in between workshops. Plus you have a lot of fun stalls to explore in the main arena offering jewellery (like this very well designed one below), fancy dress, instruments, CDs and more.

Jewellery Stall CFF 2017.jpg

What do you eat at festivals as a vegetarian or vegan?

It is actually at festivals where quite a few pop-up stalls with inventive veggie and vegan food started out and there is no problem whatsoever at most UK festivals to eat meat-free all weekend (but do confirm this on the website of the festival you are planning on attending). At Cambridge I had a choice of curries, salads, smoothies, Indian street food, burritos, cakes, wood oven pizza and more and a veggie version of the ‘full English’ is pretty standard, too, nowadays. As a staff member, I was lucky to also get to eat at Red Radish backstage once a day, who had the yummiest veggie and vegan dishes every day, such as delicious curry with melons and vegan Bolognese pasta.

Veggie Food CFF 2017.jpg

While my first ever Cambridge Folk Festival in 2015 was still the best one so far for me, 2017 was definitely very enjoyable again. And the fact that Rhiannon Giddens (video snippet of her 2015 set) will be taking over from Jon Boden next year as a guest festival curator (besides Bev Burton who took over the main festival programmer job from Eddie Barcan this year) is already a great reason to attend next year, too!

Stage 1 Friday CFF 2017

P.S. This year there was an all-female line-up for stage 1, which should be a great example for other festivals to up their female musicians percentage. I personally think it would work even better if it wasn’t all condensed into one day and just spread throughout the weekend, but what’s important is that Bev and the team have obviously given it a thought and are helping to make positive change happen. Excellent!

Life Ain’t No Dress Rehearsal: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2016

It was Stephen Fearing’s song ‘No Dress Rehearsal’ (based on a Mark Twain Quote) which summed up this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival (26-29 August 2016) for me. Living in the moment doesn’t get much better than meeting old and making new friends in a place where the positive energy is palpable and smiling at strangers is actually ‘the done thing’. While many festivals appear to be superficial entertainment for the masses on the outside, SFF is a great example how through common interests people can create something very special, a beautiful village for folk-music lovers which gets built again every August in Shrewsbury, Shropshire.

shrewsbury sunshine

The story already begins when you set up your tent. I’ve only been coming to SFF for the past 5 years (it celebrated its 20th birthday this year, congrats!), but every time I return, within a few minutes of arriving I’m already deep in conversation with another steward (one of the nearly 500 of us) or festival goer about our favourite acts of the previous year and what we’re most looking forward to this time around. There is always someone who lends a helping hand, has a spare tent peg or a hot cup of tea just when you need it.

TequilaSunrise SFF 2016

Having joined the 2012 stewards team quite last minute helping out with the Task Force, I’ve been a part of Artist Reception for the past four years now. It’s a small but busy team checking in musicians, providing assistance and food and drink as well as guarding the artist entrance and car park. One of the main reasons why SFF has such a great reputation is its excellent organisation and the dedication of everyone involved from the festival directors to each individual steward. How lovely to see the same smiling faces every year (pictured below Judy with Gromit & Leona May), it just makes you feel instantly at home.

Judy with Gromit & Leona May

After a busy summer of travelling the Balkans and four other festivals (Beyond The Border, Yoga Connects, Cambridge Folk Festival & Soul Circus), I really wanted to have a stress-free bank holiday weekend and Shrewsbury Folk Festival is always the perfect event for it. There are plenty of food vendors on site and the town centre is only a short scenic stroll away along the River Severn. Being on the site of the West Midlands Showgrounds, it has good toilet facilities and, in the past few years, even started offering ‘shower queue entertainment’ in the form of pop-up sets by up and coming artists in the mornings.

yoga SFF 2016

There is also one yoga session a day (100+ people at every class!) in the dance tent for adults plus two shorter ones for families on three of the festival days and even though they were a tad on the early side (8.30am) I was very glad I went along. The perfect way of waking up your muscles after a night in the tent! I also made it to the beginners’ whistle and flute workshop this year and can now play a pretty decent version of Mary Had a Little Lamb and The Bear Dance, for whatever that’s worth.

Rosanne Cash SFF 2016

And now to the music! It was a great line-up again, as usual, and I particularly enjoyed seeing previous favourites Ten Strings and a Goat Skin, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings (plus a great solo set by Stephen Fearing), John Jones and friends including Seth Lakeman, Raghu Dixit (sing along challenge of the weekend!) and Barnstar! again. I was also excited to catch US singer songwriter Richard Shindell, Irish musician Andy Irvine, songwriter and broadcaster Tom Robinson, London-based The Boondock Hippy, fab local band Two Blank Pages, The Kefaya Music Collective and The Urban Folk Quartet for the first time. One of my highlights of this year’s festival was the set by Rosanne Cash and her husband John Leventhal (who happens to be an excellent guitar player). Despite the early morning yoga I managed to make it to the ceilidh on Sunday night with the excellent Blackbeard’s Tea Party creating a wonderfully joyous atmosphere. Loved it!

Dulcimer Workshop SFF 2016

While it’s impossible not to have a good time at SFF, the 2016 edition was definitely one of my favourites so far. Sitting around a table in the onsite Berwick Bar on the Monday night and singing along to folk and rock favourites with everyone else with a friendly dog called Lola on my lap and a pint of Kingstone Press cider in my hand, I couldn’t believe we’d have to wait another year for this magic to happen all over again. But, as Stephen Fearing sings in his song, ‘Time doesn’t know reversal, life is no dress rehearsal’. Especially in a world so full of conflict, it really is time to ‘try and act accordingly’, to enjoy the good times while they last, to be kind to fellow strangers and grateful for those special moments. Shrewsbury Folk Festival definitely does its bit to make the world a better place (as cheesy as this may sound) and I’ve already got the 2017 festival dates firmly marked in my calendar. See you there!

Mind The Roundabouts: Cambridge Folk Festival 2016

While it’s exciting to be at an event for the first time and discovering all its ins and outs, I love returning to a festival and being able to look forward to what I know will be a great music-filled weekend. Cambridge Folk Festival (28-31 July 2016) is one of those examples as it’s always impeccably organised and runs like clockwork, but at the same time has a friendly, laid-back vibe.

This year’s festival started for me in a very relaxed fashion as I had plenty of time on Thursday to set up the happy tent at Coldham’s Common, head into town to get supplies and then make my way over to Cherry Hinton Hall where the festival began as usual with Stage 2 and the Club Tent plus The Den swinging into action around 6pm. I decided to start with Imar, a fab inventive Glasgow-based five piece trad band with Scottish, Irish and Manx roots. After a veggie burrito dinner I headed over to The Den, a smaller stage with a cosy living-room feel which always hosts a number of exciting not so well-known bands. The first set I caught was by Bristol-based Heg & the Wolf Chorus, who call their mesmerising musical storytelling “theatrical folk music”. This was followed by the very energetic brother duo Echo Town, made up of Richard and Robert Harrison whose rhythm-based live show included didgeridoo, djembe, a drum set and guitar. It only took a few songs for the audience to realise this was the perfect opportunity to get up from the cosy rugs spread around the tent and start dancing their socks off, which we did!

Cambridge Folk Festival 2016

After a quiet night at the campground, which again had everything one could possibly wish for, including good showers, a live music tent (more about this later) and food and drink until the early hours, I caught the official shuttle back to the festival site in the morning. I grabbed a coffee and some breakfast and started with a very relaxed songwriting workshop by Chris Wood. Then I headed over to the duck pond for a peaceful yoga and meditation session led by Teresa. A great start to the first festival day.

Although Friday had pretty mixed weather overall this didn’t dampen the spirits of the festival goers in the slightest given the enticing line-up across the three stages. This year featured a lot of excellent Irish artists, the first of which for me was Lisa O’Neill, who I’d seen in Dublin before and is one of those songwriters whose talent most definitely belies their age. The rest of the day was spent sampling the various musical offerings and finding new favourites including Americana duo The Mike + Ruthy Band, who are hailing from Upstate New York and even have their own festival, The Hoot. In the evening it was time for a set by Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall on Stage 1 and I stayed on for Gogol Bordello, whose Gypsy punk sounds were a nice contrast to the more traditional acts who were on during most of the day.

Leyla McCalla

On Saturday I started the day again with some excellent coffee and another songwriting workshop, this time by English folk revival superstar Eliza Carthy, who was just as entertaining, funny and thoughtful in a smaller setting as she was on stage with her 12-piece Wayward Band. The next highlight of the day lasted for nearly three hours as the Festival Session on Stage 2 hosted by Brian O’Neill was like a high-profile open mic with top musicians and newcomers (Le Vent du Nord, Världens Bänd, Sam Kelly, Jack Cookson, Kadia) passing the musical baton every few minutes, just fabulous! One of Saturday’s standout sets was by Leyla McCalla (formerly cellist with The Carolina Chocolate Drops) and band. Her repertoire and arrangements influenced by Cajun, Haitian and Creole music were simply beautiful. Another excellent Americana band, the Massachusetts-based all male quartet Darlingside, became one of the festival favourites over the weekend, having been given a Stage 1 slot at the last minute to replace Charles Bradley, who had sadly been taken ill. After a jam-packed day I was very excited to see Christy Moore on Stage 1. I hadn’t seen the iconic Irish singer, now in his early seventies, live since the 1990s and was pleasantly surprised that his classic songs sounded just as fresh and relevant as they had two decades ago. Ably supported by another excellent Irish musician, Declan Sinnott, as well as Seamie O’Dowd and Jimmy Higgins, it was probably my favourite set of the festival weekend. As much as I love folk music from all over the world, there is something about Irish music and voices that touch my heart in a way nothing else can.

Mary Chapin Carpenter 1

The last festival day always approaches way too fast and again I decided to take it easy and go for quality over quantity. Powerful all female five-piece Della Mae from Nashville were a must on my list and I hope they’ll bring their infectious brand of Americana back to the UK very soon. In the evening I greatly enjoyed Mary Chapin Carpenter’s set on Stage 1. It didn’t beat the singalong experience we had with Joan Baez last year, but having never seen her live before, I really enjoyed both her classic songs as well as her newer material and the stage banter in between. I then headed over to The Flower Garden to a fascinating workshop by US folk musicians Anna & Elizabeth who showcased their handmade “crankies”, miraculous scrolls either painted or sewn with fabric to illustrate the story of a sung ballad, a fascinating tradition which the duo have successfully dragged into the modern day and age. I, for one, have been inspired to give crankie-making a go myself over the winter months. Take a look at The Crankie Factory to learn more about them.

Anna & Elizabeth Crankie Workshop

After a break for wood-fired pizza another Irish favourite of mine, Imelda May, took to Stage 1. While the Cambridge audience seemed to take a little while to warm to her very danceable rock’n’roll sound, her version of U2’s “All I Want Is You” with everyone joining in was the most beautiful moment of the set. I ended the night with Hot 8 Brass Band and the musicians from New Orleans seriously blew the proverbial roof off Stage 2. Their set concluded with a parade right through the audience over to the Mojo tent with everyone whooping and clapping along, what a festival finish!

But wait, the real highlight was still to come: the bus trip over to Coldham’s Common, which traditionally leaves the drivers free to go around the three roundabouts on the way as often as they want with happy passengers cheering along like excited school kids. Ah, the simple pleasures of life! I’d also like to give an extra special shout-out to the amazing late night bar tent at the campsite. The best afterparty at the festival, which even attracted some of the official CFF bands, such as Flats & Sharps for a late night set, just added that special extra to an already successful and well-organised event. Well done everyone!

Midwinter Music Madness: Celtic Connections Glasgow 2016

January isn’t usually a popular festival month in most European countries, but luckily the guys at Celtic Connections filled this festival-free zone with one of the most amazing music events I’ve ever attended. From 14 – 31 January 2016 Glasgow was yet again the backdrop for 18 midwinter days of excellent folk music, Americana, world music with a Celtic twist, educational programmes, Showcase Scotland and, of course, the ever popular festival club.

I managed to make it to Scotland for a couple of those days, trying to ignore the many tempting concerts which I was sadly missing on each end (Patty Griffin, The Moving Hearts, Jason Isbell, The Lone Bellow, Seckou Keita & Gwyneth Glyn to name just a few). It was my first time in Glasgow and as I stepped off the train at Central Station, I already knew I would like the place. I’m a big fan of discovering a new city through a festival and was positively surprised about the many amazing cultural venues and museums the city has to offer.

Being based at the festival HQ, I spent a couple of hours every day getting artist packs ready, sorting out transport, meal vouchers and anything else the bands needed together with a fun volunteer team of all ages who were all seriously passionate about folk and Americana.

Martha & Lucy CC 16

On Monday night I managed to catch the Wainwright Sisters, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche (with support by Ethan Johns) at the City Halls who performed songs from their latest shared album ‘Songs in the Dark’ as well as some of their own material. It was just the two singers with their guitars, jokes, stories and two perfectly matching voices. Superb.

The night after I had tickets for a Seirm recording session for BBC Alba at the Hillhead Bookclub, a wonderful venue (which used to be a pre-First World War cinema, the Hillhead Electric Theatre) in the West End. We were treated to a night of Scottish Gaelic, folk, and Americana music including South Uist singer (and Outlander star) Gillbride MacMillan, New Hampshire based singer-songwriter (and also Gaelic speaker) Kyle Carey as well as French chansons courtesy of Anne Carrere of Piaf! The Show plus another set by the Wainwright Sisters, this time so intimate, it felt like a living room concert.

On Wednesday night it was time for Rhiannon Giddens and band on the Old Fruitmarket stage (yet another beautiful historic venue!). Being one of the founding members of the equally amazing Carolina Chocolate Drops, she never fails to impress. Her exquisite voice, clever choice of material (mostly taken from her latest solo album ‘Tomorrow is my Turn’) and incredible stage presence were a winner with the sold out house. On Thursday night Mairi Campbell’s intriguing solo show Pulse at the Tron Theatre was followed by my only chance to enjoy the festival club at the Art School (incl. the Poozies, Nuala Kennedy and Daoiri Farrell & the Four Winds) until the early hours, which was a great finale for my first Celtic Connections visit to Glasgow.

Rhiannon Giddens CC 16

In between all the musical happenings I also managed to explore quite a bit of what the city has to offer in terms of culture, cafes and veggie food. As far as I’m concerned Glasgow is seriously underrated as a weekend trip destination! Here are just a few examples why:

Museums: I loved the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (great collection and stunning building), the Burrell Collection in Pollok Park complete with Highland cows grazing outside, the Mitchell Library (the largest public reference library in Europe and also host to the lovely Aye Write and Wee Write festivals) and the Lighthouse design museum (great view of the city centre from the top). All of them are free entry (donations welcome).

Cafes, food and neighbourhoods: I ventured both to the West End (great coffee, veggie soup and homemade bread at Kember & Jones) on the third-oldest subway system in the world as well as the South Side (finally managed to visit the Glad Café, fab live music venue plus the most scrumptious veggie haggis burger and sweet potato fries) by bus plus discovered tons of great charity shops. Other places I ate at where Stereo (just like at Mono, fab veggie and vegan food in another cool music and arts venue) as well as Café Source (in the basement of the St Andrews church/venue), The Steamie (see pic below) and the Saramago Café at the CCA. Somehow the best cultural spots also seemed to have the best coffee, veggie and vegan food, way to go!

The very best part of my visit were the Glaswegians though. ‘People Make Glasgow’ might be a marketing slogan, but I really felt immediately at home in this beautiful Scottish city with its humorous locals and lively cultural and festival scene. Can’t wait to be back sometime very soon!

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Music Makes The World Go Round: Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2015

I love discovering new festivals, the excitement of finding music I’ve never heard before and trying out things I would have otherwise never given a go. But as much as I enjoy variety, I also crave known comforts. Shrewsbury Folk Festival takes place on the August bank holiday weekend every year and for me usually marks the end of a long and fun festival summer. It‘s a time to wind down after a busy couple of months and SFF is the perfect event for it.

It was my fourth time in Shrewsbury this year and the festival never disappoints. Personally, I would have liked to see a few more Americana acts, but hey, it‘s a folk festival after all and one of the best ones around. So all those who are into traditional folk music were spoilt for choice with reliable festival favourites Nancy Kerr, Kate Rusby, The Oyster Band, Steve Knightley and Sharon Shannon as well as many younger but equally popular bands, such as Threepenny Bit, the Young’uns and Lucy Ward.

SFF sunset

There was also a well-received five-hour long peace concert, the annual parade in Shrewsbury town centre with many colourful morris sides entertaining the public, Pandemonium with a huge choice of events for the little ones, and tuneworks music workshops for everyone all weekend long.

The absence of many of the usual „band clash issues“ left me free to really relax into the festival happenings and also led me to some music and experiences I would have probably otherwise missed.

One of my favourite sessions was for instance the songwriting workshop with UK singer/songwriter Jack Harris in the cosy extension of the Berwick Pavillion, which took place once a day from Saturday until Monday. Calling it a songslam was slightly misleading as there was nothing competitive about it at all. Festival attendees took turns presenting their own songs, each followed by the group discussing songwriting techniques and themes (experience of war and family history were popular). It was lovely having the space and time to listen to a lone voice with a guitar in a very supportive environment. No meditation session could have had a more positive and calming effect on us.

Equally mesmerising was a mainstage 2 set by Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita on Monday afternoon. Their way of fusing harp and kora sounds was simply beautiful, two cultures talking to each other through the shared language of music.

Catrin Seckou SFF

I also really enjoyed the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Having first seen them at Cambridge Folk Festival this July, I made a note to catch them again and they didn’t disappoint. While the Australian Spooky Men’s Chorale’s humour left me mainly yawning, the subtler sounds and jokes by this fabulous ukes ensemble fitted perfectly into my meditative theme at this year’s festival.

North Carolina based singer/songwriter Jonathan Byrd and the Sentimentals saved the weekend in terms of Americana sounds for me (here is a taste: You Can’t Outrun The Radio) and I heard some rumours there might be more of an Americana focus again next year, fingers crossed.

My favourite festival discovery this year was quite a traditional band though, the young Canadian trio Ten Strings and a Goat Skin from Prince Edward Island who play Acadian, Irish and French tunes as well as their own compositions. Having very much enjoyed their intimate show at Green Note the Monday before, I ended up seeing all three of their Shrewsbury sets. There are many traditional bands around who play fast-paced and fabulous music. What distinguishes the best from the rest, however, is their ability to really connect with an audience. Brothers Rowen on fiddle and Caleb on percussion (incl. bodhran) as well as Jesse on guitar were the surprise hit of this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival and by their third set on Sunday night we were all dancing in front of the stage. What fun!

There are many good reasons why Shrewsbury Folk Festival is such a much-loved event. Mine are mostly that the volunteer crew is dedicated and cheerful (so great to see everyone again this year!), the quality of the performers is always reliably high, food and drink choices are varied and plentiful, Shrewsbury town centre with many lovely cafes and (charity) shops is just a stone’s throw away and, best of all, everyone is just getting on with it and having a brilliant time! To put it in a nutshell, the ideal folkie short break, which leaves you invigorated and ready for more of the same the next year and the one after that and so on.

P.S. Nearly forgot #folkiedog! What a pleasure to meet so many folkie dogs again this year, I even recognised a folkie dog family from the equally dog-friendly Maverick festival in Suffolk (note to self: must start #Americanadog next summer…). Here is a little video featuring some of the SFF folkie dogs.

Rimpee folkiedog SFF

The Best Medicine: Cambridge Folk Festival 2015

Festivals have always been a time for celebration and enjoyment, but to some of us, they are also a great source of inspiration. I, for one, am forever on the look-out for songwriters and songs that really move me and it always puts a smile on my face when I come across something special, like at the recent Cambridge Folk Festival (30 July – 2 August 2015) – 51 years and still going strong.

Sometimes it is the circumstances of how a band came to be in the first place, which are rather extraordinary, such as with The Lone Bellow from Brooklyn, who really blew me away with their positive energy and thoughtful lyrics, for instance “Green eyes and a heart of gold, All our money’s gone and the house is cold, And it’s alright, it’s alright.” It is often life-changing events that make us take stock of what, deep down, is important to us. The song is also a great reminder that money cannot buy health nor happiness and that every day is a gift (which may be an overused phrase, but I really believe it is).

Peggy Seeger performed at the very first Cambridge Folk Festival and returned after 50 years sharing her wisdom gained during a lifetime filled with music. I was lucky to be at both her set on stage 2 as well as her talk on the Club stage. The interview-style event was a rare opportunity to learn about a past I had only read about in books before. And yet, it was a small remark she made early on during her talk, which struck a real chord with me: “Every child is a singer until someone stops them.” This is so very true about music as well as many of the other (hidden) talents all of us have. I used to love drawing until I came across a very critical art teacher (failed artist?) in my early teens. Recovering these early passions can be a life-long but rather enjoyable process as it is never too late to be creative. Peggy said that, despite health setbacks, she still practises playing about 2 hours each day and her 80th birthday wish was to go on tour with her two sons, which she did. How inspiring is that?

Peggy & Joan

Having never seen Joan Baez live before, I had really been looking forward to her performance at CFF. It was a wonderful experience to be at the very front near the stage with thousands of other folkies singing along behind us to all the folk classics. I surprised myself with remembering pretty much all the lyrics of “House of the Rising Sun”, having sung it many times in Catholic (!) school as a young girl. Of course, none of us had any idea at the time, what the song was really all about. It seemed like Joan and many of the other performers were quite impressed with how passionate the audience was about music and singing; a memorable hour for all of us spent in the very best company.

This was also the case for the Passenger set. Mike Rosenberg, aka Passenger, had started out “busking” at the CFF Guinness tent in 2011 and was back this year, this time as one of the headliners on the main stage (plus a “secret gig” at the Guinness tent for old times’ sake). I enjoyed his humorous on-stage banter and how genuinely appreciative he was about playing such a prestigious event. One line that stayed with me afterwards was “You see, all I need’s a whisper in a world that only shouts” (from “Whispers”). And he couldn’t have put this any better, of course: “I hate ignorant folks, who pay money to see gigs, And talk through every f****** song” (from “I Hate”). To prove this point – or rather the opposite – he sang “The Sound of Silence” and thanked the audience for being so attentive; you could have heard a pin drop even though there were thousands of us gathered there while everyone happily joined in on his hit song “Let Her Go”. Paying attention to details and sharing silence(s) can be a beautiful thing indeed.

CFF 1

Sadly, there is not enough space to list all the songwriting gems I came across throughout the weekend. But let me share one last one, which the title of this blog post is based on and which has been the tune I was still humming on my way back from CFF. The Stray Birds from Pennsylvania are one of those bands who seamlessly manage to merge folk tradition with modern sensibilities. Their song “Best Medicine” (inspired by this awesome US record shop) sums up how I feel about music in general: “If the body is a temple, the soul is a bell and that’s why music is the best medicine I sell.” Just repeat this line aloud a few times and you will see why it is so powerful.

I am forever grateful for the never-ending stream of excellent music coming my way day in and day out. If you dig a little deeper and get below the commercial fare blaring from loudspeakers up and down the country, it will open up a whole new world of music to discover. And once you have tumbled down the rabbit hole of my favourite genre, “good music”, there really is no need to go back.

If there was any common thread with all the artists at Cambridge Folk Festival 2015, it was the passion with which they performed their songs and practised their craft. One highlight after another on three main stages (including the above mentioned as well as John Butler Trio, Rhiannon Giddens, Nick Mulvey, Gretchen Peters, The Willows, and new discoveries Fara, Rura and Lynched) plus a fabulous “fringe” programme at the Den (e.g. The Boundless Brothers, Callaghan & Ciaran Lavery) and even a stage on the campsite (!) made it come pretty close to the dream line-up any of us could have wished for if money and conflicting touring schedules were no object.

CFF 2

The one thing I was most impressed by, however, was the folk fest audience. Every day I would have conversations with fellow music lovers of all ages – the littlest festival attendee I met being only a mere month old – over a meal or a pint. Everyone seemed to have a constant smile plastered across their face, and rightly so. Who needs drugs when you can enjoy such amazing music for four days in a row? One particular festival moment, which is permanently etched in my memory, are the short but hilarious bus trips from the festival site to the campground every evening. The nightly singalong on the upper deck of the bus and the local bus drivers becoming folkie accomplices as we went around a single roundabout again and again and again, was the icing on the cake of an already superlative event. Well done, Cambridge Folk Fest, I hope this (for all the right reasons) successful festival will continue for many, many years to come!